J. G. Ballard

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars

The Wind From Nowhere

The Wind from NowhereThe Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) was first published as a novel in 1962. However, it was published originally in two parts as “Storm-Wind” in 1961 in New Worlds Science Fiction issue #110 edited by John Carnell.  This is the second novel by Ballard that I have read; I read High-Rise in 2016.

I read the 1966 Berkley Medallion edition with Richard Powers cover art.

This novel is both good and bad, but unfortunately, overall it cannot be rated highly. Ballard disliked, disowned, and denigrated this novel as nothing more than a quickly written piece to make some cash to support his new family. It is Ballard’s first novel and it is probably true (I haven’t read enough Ballard to assess properly) that he improved. I do not imagine most authors want their first published novel to be some choppy entertainment written speedily for whatever money they could sell it for.

Yet Ballard does deserve five stars for the awesomeness of a steadily increasing, totally destructive, all-planet windstorm. He even has this windstorm destroy whole cities and countries and does not shy away from the mega-destruction. When reading about the wind, reading the descriptions and about its effects, it is really terrifying and awesome.

Some of the best parts of this windstorm are that it is unexplained. In the beginning, some characters just assume its localized. Some think it is just a particularly awful storm. And then as infrastructure starts breaking down and the wind speeds increase, its too late to get answers to the why and how, instead the characters (humanity, generally) is busy trying to survive. The lack of knowledge makes the windstorm even more terrifying. We follow the events as the wind is around 55 mph and, toward the end of the novel, somewhere around 500 mph. Unbelievable, but yet so enthralling as a science fiction disaster novel.

However, as a novel, leaving so much unexplained also feels unsatisfying and unfinished. The worst part of the this whole novel is that it seems like Ballard did not know who the main character was or what their story was going to be. Throughout, he just flips around between characters who all seem to be thrown in the plot randomly. Instead of following a character’s path, it gets extremely discordant and random. Following the characters is easily the most miserable part of the novel.

Also, the characters randomly go and attempt to do some stupid, useless thing all together in their heavy armored vehicles. This usually does not work and everyone ends up scattered in other temporary bunkers. In other words: the storyline does not progress, everything is mangled again, and the characters are flip-flopped.

When the novel begins, Donald Maitland is leaving his wife. She is a rich playgirl type who has a new boy on her arm every week. She likes parties and the lifestyle. The husband has quit his job to head for a university in Montreal. Oddly, Maitland becomes the action-hero star of the novel (if there is one), though in the early going he hardly seems capable of what he is written into. He seems like a jilted husband who is wrapped up in his own drama. He is, at best, a bookish academic, it seems.

One of the oddest characters is the character Steve Lanyon. Commander Lanyon is a submarine commander in the US Navy. Perhaps the oddest segment of the novel is how he is sent to Italy to run the countryside on a bizarre mission to acquire the corpse of an American dignitary. Naturally, this fails and just turns into an action scene adventure. But how very odd to have a submarine commander anywhere but water.

And then there is RH. The initials of a millionaire character with the surname Hardoon. Hardoon is eccentric (he has henchmen and a pyramid) and bizarre and on the level of the very “best” Bond villains. He gets written into the plot sideways and has connections with characters, so that he seems somewhat like a secret hand moving in the shadows. When we get the displeasure of meeting him, he is ego-centric and ridiculous and any of the build up regarding what he is about dissipates into nothing. The worst part is that there is no real reason for this character and all his associations to have been written into this novel at all.

Anyway, the characters are awful. However, the actual disaster is exciting and terrifying. So, while this is not a good novel, it is also unique and awesome in its own manner. I cannot really recommend it to readers who love a good, completed story. But for fans of Ballard and/or disaster fiction, this one is worthwhile. Probably those who enjoyed Level 7 by Roshwald or October the First is Too Late by Hoyle would get something out of this one. I wish Ballard had not been so angry with it – it really deserved to be re-written and republished. For fans of disaster and over-the-top scenarios.

2 stars

High-Rise

high rise

High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

It took me a little while to get through High-Rise. Not for reasons one would expect; you know, crazed psychopathic human society degenerating violently. Instead, the writing kind of bored me or somehow did not sufficiently match the topic. I’ll be honest, I can appreciate the concept and the thrill of what this novel does. However, I am not going to rate it highly. Feel free to disagree vehemently in the comments.

High-Rise by J. G. Ballard was first published in 1975 in the U.K.  It is the first item that I have ever read by Ballard, though I do own a number of his works – to include a science fiction collection.  I have seen this novel categorized in a number of genres – from horror to science fiction, though I do not think I would use either. It is definitely a style of dystopian work. Here’s the thing:  many readers have made comparisons with William Golding’s (1911 – 1993) novel Lord of the Flies (1954).  I cannot make a single comment on this comparison because. . . . . I have not read Lord of the Flies.

High-Rise is less of a novel with a traditional plot – than a study of the degeneration of society. Ballard has an extremely negative view of humanity – and his characters quickly descend from rational creatures to primitive brutes. The entire novel takes place in a single 40-story building that is one of a number that are in some stage of construction in a development. The architect is Anthony Royal and he, too, lives in the building. Please note the last name of this character and where he resides in the building. Not subtle, Ballard.

The residents of the building have arranged themselves, through purpose and custom, into a stratification of social classes.  The top floors are obviously the over-wealthy.  They are extravagant and powerful and rather out of touch with humanity, generally.  The middle floors are those professionals who are quite successful, but yet still are not the “one percent” of the society. These people (and the floors they inhabit) could be further sectioned into subclasses, but generally, they are those who work for the “one percent” and who use/exploit the lower classes.

Naturally, the lower classes fill the remainder of the building’s floors. They are the noisy, hard-working people.  This is the floor with children, pets, housewives who are not merely arm candy, people who work hard for a living.  However, it should be noted that even these “lower class” people are not truly the lower class. One does not obtain residence in this building without at least having reached a relative height of society.

Instead of following the usual trajectory of plotline, Ballard focuses on several characters (one from each societal class) and shares chunks of their experience as the high-rise’s inhabitants turn feral.  We are first introduced to Dr. Robert Laing who is sitting on his balcony and is reflecting on the events that have already transpired.  In essence, the first few pages take places after all of the events of the novel. Anyway, Laing represents something of the “middle class” of this building.  He is recently divorced and was lured to this residence by his sister – who also lives in the building, a few floors above his.

Another character we meet is Richard Wilder. He represents the lower class of this building.  Ballard constantly reminds the reader of Wilder’s physical characteristics.  This repetition gets annoying quickly. The reader actually spends a lot of time with Wilder and in some sense, I was relatively disappointed with his ending. He is a documentary filmmaker and comes equipped with a camera. There is something creative and interesting about this – but I feel Ballard does not push this element anywhere. Anyway, Wilder’s goal is to supplant Royal; a goal which feels very wooden and stereotypical to the reader.

Ballard wants the reader to see how easy and simple it is for the façade of “rational, cultured” person to slip into brute primitive animal. However, I do not think this slide is so very quick and easy. And I do think Ballard sets up a number of “straw men.” The main one being that all the residents unanimously, but silently agree to hide the events from the outside world.  I do not believe for an instant that this could be done. Even if it could be done by agreement – accidents happen. The outside world, as it were, would push in. Curiosity, surveillance, questioning, investigation, random chance – all of this would prevent this story before it gets started. And I guess I just could not suspend the disbelief enough.

The second: that no resident leaves the building early on. Sure, it is likely and psychologically possible that many would stay in this deviant playhouse. However the fact that none leave is too much.

Third, and perhaps the most vexing, is that Ballard arranges his building with only damaged and corrupt people. In fact, it is not that they become crazed or destructive – they actually are already this way and events hasten on these characteristics. Does Ballard propose we call all humans, at base, destructive and damaged? But it’s simply not true, no matter how pessimistic and hostile we want to be in our assessment of humanity.

The writing kind of bored me. I felt it did not match the intensity of the events of the high-rise. And maybe that is the point; maybe the matter-of-fact normalcy of the writing tone juxtaposed with the extremity of the events is meant to show how “mundane” such wild things have become. But I doubt this – I feel that would be me overthinking the tone.

If Ballard wanted to push limits (and he clearly does) then he should have pushed limits. Sure, there are shocking scenes…. (okay, and I do mean really shocking. People eat dogs. Elderly women are beaten. And the supporting character Steele is truly difficult to read through)… but scenes alone do not push limits. It just piles gore on gore.  Depravity and dysfunction in different ways all become the same. A strong sense of degeneration and regression pervades the whole novel.  However, I feel the novel is also full of little tidbits that Ballard could have taken and examined.  I feel there is a lot of potential for making a tighter assessment or further developing a thread of this human degeneration. I can only think of one section that really looks at this situation:

Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor.  He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins.  He found it hard to remember what their original function had been.  To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand.  Even the rundown nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful was.  Laing pondered this – sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted. -pg. 176 (Chapter 16)

This was, for me, the most interesting passage in the novel.  And I wish I could share that the novel is replete with such analysis.  But it isn’t. Ballard did right by showing us the pent up aggression, the shifting alliances, and even the loss of language skills.  Yet, there was a lot that seemed a little too contrived even in this contrived lab experiment.

I think that the idea behind the novel is more exciting than its actual execution.  I think, though I disagree with, Ballard’s dismal view of humanity here is worth exploring and examining. But I struggled with the pacing and viewpoints and the writing. Admittedly, the idea of a “contained society” (in a human-made structure) going to hell sociologically is a fascinating one.  No doubt things would be this extreme, but they would not be this cardboard.

2 stars

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